Wednesday, 28 September 2011

So it goes

This is another book I plucked from my parent's bookshelves, a somewhat battered 1970's copy with very yellow pages: Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut.
I am not so sure that this is really a novel. I think it is really a thinly veiled excuse to write about his war experience, since it recounts in some detail his witnessing of the destruction of Dresden in February 1945. When you experience something so overwhelming it is almost impossible to make sense of it. One little quote kind of summed it up, in discussing the works of Kilgore Trout and why they were helpful to war veterans: "So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help."

A young lad called Billy Pilgrim (an allegorical name if I ever heard one) time travels within his own life, experiencing it all in a strange order, and also travels in space as he is kidnapped by aliens called Tralfamadorians and taken to their planet to be exhibited in the zoo. The Tralfamadorians insist that there is no such thing as time or death, that all moments exist all the time, which is how Billy can travel to other points in his life, and that all events are inevitable. This is a very thin book, because not very much happens in Billy's life, except for the war and the alien kidnap thing:

"There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters." (p.110)

As I say, it's not so much a novel as a philosophical treatise about the absurdity of life. He experiences this most terrible of events, in the firebombing of Dresden, and yet after that life must go on. Although we are seeing it all backwards (because the whole book leads up to their imprisonment in Slaughterhouse 5, the firebombing and the execution of Edgar Derby) you do feel that the experience changed him. When he first arrives in the war he is resigned to his fate and wants to be left to die rather than struggle for survival, but afterwards, though he learns of the inevitability from the Tralfamadorians he somehow makes more sense out of life. What it reminded me of most was Voltaire's Candide, which is a satire that mocks certain philosophical beliefs. Slaughterhouse 5 is punctuated by the phrase 'So it goes' (to confirm both mundane events and horrific ones) which seemed to me to mirror Dr Pangloss in Candide, who says repeatedly that they live 'in the best of all possible worlds'. They both seem to say, 'this is the way things are, they just are and you can't do anything about it'. It appears somewhat fatalistic but Billy becomes the antithesis of the naively optimistic Candide, accepting events through his ability to revisit them in the past, but not placing a moral value on the events. He gives toward the end the oft quoted aphorism 'God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom always to tell the difference', which, though a little trite, kind of sums things up.

This is my favourite passage from the book. Life is absurd when you view it forwards. However it makes much more sense in reverse:

"American planes full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for the wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and the planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialist in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anyone ever again." (p.54)

1 comment:

  1. Great review! You and I both share the favourite same passage, and we also share similar thoughts on the book, but as a whole I think I rated it a bit higher than you did. Check out my review if you have the time!


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